Monday, September 28, 2009

On Priorities

Updated below @ 1820, 9/29

The American political scene will never be accused of being held captive by perspective. When even something as basic as "which of these numbers is larger?" can't be harnessed by the blathering press and political leaders, one can hardly expect to find the ability for relative comparisons running rampant. Two disparate issues stand out for me as cases-in-point: election fraud vis Iran and Afghanistan, and the Defund ACORN Act.

Everyone knows about the election fraud in Iran. It was on every channel for nearly a month, demonstrating the journalistic acumen of the American media (re: Bringing you the news in 140 characters or less!), and proving once and for all Iranian leaders are the evilest of all evil-doers the world has ever seen. Granted, said leaders are not great ambassadors for democracy (no one would make such a claim), but the elections were in the news for a reason. The same reason the brutal Egyptian and Saudi regimes don't make the news.

Compare that coverage with that of electoral fraud in Afghanistan. It's okay if you haven't heard of it. Not many have. Why would you? The person accused of fraud is our guy. That's enough to keep him under wraps. If electoral shenanigans were mentioned, it was only to point out Taliban violence. CNN did not do wall-to-wall coverage on things like this:

The shaky footage shows two election monitors inspecting a book of 100 ballot papers that are still stitched together, as they were intended to arrive at the polling station in rural Afghanistan. But something is wrong; instead of being pristine, ready for the voter to make his or her mark, each paper bears a large blue tick next to the name of one candidate: Hamid Karzai.

As the monitors flick through the pad, the back of the ballots clearly show the authorisation stamp of election monitors, validating them as votes ready to be put in the ballot box and counted.

"We found it the day after the elections," one of the monitors in the footage told me. "They were trying to put it in one of the [ballot] boxes but didn't have time, so we took it home and filmed it. If we had given it back to the election committee they would have used it again, so we burned it, but filmed it to protect ourselves if they come and threaten us."

Or this:

The Afghan elections, already tainted by widespread accusations of misconduct and fraud, received another body blow Wednesday when the head of the European Union's election-monitoring commission said that as many as 1.1 million votes cast in the vote were "suspect."

The latest dark cloud over the Aug. 20 election came as Afghanistan's election commission released a preliminary vote tally Wednesday showing President Hamid Karzai with 54.6 percent of the votes cast – enough to avoid a runoff if the total stands up to one official recount already launched and to mounting doubts like those from the EU.

The EU's general depiction of fraud was bad enough. But even more damaging to the Western-backed government of President Karzai was the finding by Phillippe Morillon, head of the EU monitor, that more than one-third of the votes Mr. Karzai received in his reelection bid – 1.1 million of about 3 million votes for Karzai – could be fraudulent and must be investigated.

None of this minimizes Taliban violence, but it does clearly indicate that American views on the world are guided more by a commitment to its allies and stock assumptions than democracy, despite public claims. President Obama has parlayed his campaign speeches into an Afghanistan policy still riding the opinion of Afghanistan as the good war. Meanwhile, the world's beacon of democracy has attached itself to the falling star of a loose coalition of corrupt warlords, most of whom are politicians in name alone. Any lingering notion that the Afghan government holds its own people in any due regard would have fallen away if such fraud was reported with the same fervency as it was regarding Iran.

The furor surrounding ACORN is better covered, mainly because it fits the tabloid model of American journalism. ACORN has always been a target of Republicans, but who would have thought the end would come with a topic so dear to their hearts: prostitution. David Vitter is surely proud.

Consider the thought process here. The defunding act would have no chance were it not for two random ACORN staffers doling out some helpful information on how to get in the flesh business. Okay, but consider the implication here. If followed to its logical conclusion, this would mean that any company that had any employee commit a federal offense would soon be off the government roll. Like these companies, for instance.

While we await that action with baited breath, let's consider a few of these offenses which might rise a little higher on the immorality of the scale. Maybe electrocuting US soldiers.

And while the Pentagon has previously reported that 13 Americans have been electrocuted in Iraq, many more have been injured, some seriously, by shocks, according to the documents. A log compiled earlier this year at one building complex in Baghdad disclosed that soldiers complained of receiving electrical shocks in their living quarters on an almost daily basis.

One study called electrocution "the most urgent noncombat safety hazard for soldiers in Iraq." And what bastion of liberalism made such a claim? The US Army. Nearly every facility constructed in Iraq by KBR/Halliburton contained dangerous electrical wiring. But, rest assured, putting American soldiers in mortal danger has not hurt the company's bottom line. Nor has the fact that its employees engaged in the gang rape and imprisonment of a female employee.

Then there's Blackwater. In the past months, Blackwater's compound has been raided by the ATF for illegal weapons trafficking, been accused of tax evasion through offshore havens, employed young Iraqi girls for oral sex, and had employees indicted on manslaughter. Yet, 90 percent of its income continues to come from the government.

So let's not kid ourselves as to the magnitude of these crimes here. If the actions of random employees loses a organization government funding, it's only fair to ask when rampant corruption and misdeeds will have their day in the self-aggrandizing Congressional theater. The bill itself states that the organization must be involved in elections, but surely the Republicans leading the charge don't intend for us to consider funneling millions into campaign coffers fitting the bill. But occasionally we may have to accept English at face value, rather than waiting for the political/media filter to deliver it to us.


The US has decided that Karzai will remain president regardless of final results.

The White House has ended weeks of hesitation over how to respond to the Afghan election by accepting President Karzai as the winner despite evidence that up to 20 per cent of ballots cast may have been fraudulent.

Abandoning its previous policy of not prejudging investigations of vote rigging, the Obama Administration has conceded that Mr Karzai will be President for another five years on the basis that even if he were forced into a second round of voting he would almost certainly win it.

The decision will increase pressure on President Obama to justify further US troop deployments to Afghanistan to prop up a regime now regarded as systemically corrupt.


Mrs Clinton told Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the Afghan Foreign Minister, that...Mr Karzai would remain President even if investigations now under way cut his share of the first-round vote to below 50 per cent.

Better get something to wash that democracy down with, Afghanistan. It's a bit bitter.


Supporting the Troops Through No-Bid Contracts May 6, 2008
When You Were Here Before...Couldn't Look You in the Eye August 9, 2009

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ambition Makes You Look Pretty Ugly...

Title lyrics from Radiohead's "Paranoid Android."

One of the most frustrating facets of any conversation with fervent opponents of President Obama is their unwillingness or inability to see that they are pretty much railing against an administration they were supporting just 8-plus months ago. Indeed, they never seem to argue against Obama as currently constituted, but instead against an apparition of a presidency that had no shot of ever materializing in the first place.

Just as the American left continues to huff the intoxicating fumes of a primary season long since past, the right continues to focus its ire on a fanciful combination of standard political rhetoric and old-fashioned scaremongering. Neither seems to understand that the Obama of the imagination, that master of oratory who would sweep us into an age of world peace and harmony and convert the United States into a vast Utopia, existed only in the minds of those who chose to believe it out of desperation and those that needed it as a large, slow-moving target at which to foist all angst and antagonism.

The reality is, as always, a lot more pedestrian. To the delight of the right, it seems that you don't need a real liberal Leviathan to stir the masses; a mirage works just as well. But for the left, the Inauguration hangover seems to linger. But, as Tom Engelhardt and David Swanson noted, it has been difficult to distinguish Obama's 8 months from a third Bush term. I also discussed some glaring similarities a month prior, but there are plenty more. To wit:

Obama's campaign continually called for a return to transparency in government. A return to the rule of law. Ad infintum. Ad nauseum. He called Bush's use of signing statements an "abuse." Yet, Obama has already committed such "abuses" several times during his presidency, drawing criticism from members of both parties. His defense is of course a familiar refrain: The statements "have been based on mainstream interpretations of the Constitution and echo reservations routinely expressed by presidents of both parties" and "he could disregard the negotiation instructions under his power to conduct foreign relations." In other words: "Screw off, Congress."

The really titillating part of that defense is the "routinely expressed" part. There are many things that have been done by previous presidents, but repetition does not exonerate. And lest we forget, that theorem goes against what seemed to constitute the only plank in his platform, namely a break from the past.

During the campaign, Obama also promised to curb government abuses regarding prisoners in the War on Amorphous Nouns. Despite all the handwringing from Cheney et al, there was never any danger of mass prosecutions for the torture of American prisoners at Guantanamo or elsewhere.

First, never in American history has a government leader been prosecuted for such crimes. Clowns like Jim Traficant can go down, but never for something that calls the whole system into question. Never for proxy wars in Latin America. Never for funneling arms to Islamic terrorists (when convenient). And, as we shall see, never for strapping live leads to someone's genitals. (And really, it's not difficult to agree with the thought that we'd have to do some real soul searching and research to determine whether that does indeed cross some line. Cause, you know, moral lines are hazy.)

This instance won't be any different. At most, we'll be offered up some sacrificial lambs/bad apples who'll be pardoned shortly thereafter. The left's fantasy of prosecutions of Cheney or Rumsfeld are never going to happen. But even in tossing a small sliver of acquiescence to opponents of US interrogation policy, Obama has effectively validated Bush policy.

Though there may be an investigation of sorts, Obama has declared that only those that went beyond the policies instituted by the Bush administration qualify for discipline. In other words, John Yoo's memos are the effective law. There will be no question as to the legality of that one-man legislation. So, while constantly proposing a radical shift from Bush-era policy in speeches, Obama validates and solidifies it in practice.

The same goes for dragnet surveillance, with the administration claiming that the federal government is immune from litigation because of Bush-era legislation. The illegality of its actions have no bearing here. Obama, like his predecessor, claims that by definition if the government does something, it is legal. Three cheers for change.

Returning to US detention policy, Obama seems to have discovered that Bush set him up quite nicely in that arena:

The Obama administration has decided not to seek new legislation from Congress authorizing the indefinite detention of about 50 terrorism suspects being held without charges at at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, officials said Wednesday.

Instead, the administration will continue to hold the detainees without bringing them to trial based on the power it says it has under the Congressional resolution passed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, authorizing the president to use force against forces of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

In concluding that it does not need specific permission from Congress to hold detainees without charges, the Obama administration is adopting one of the arguments advanced by the Bush administration in years of debates about detention policies.

It gets better:

But President Obama’s advisers are not embracing the more disputed Bush contention that the president has inherent power under the Constitution to detain terrorism suspects indefinitely regardless of Congress.

The Justice Department said in a statement Wednesday night that “the administration would rely on authority already provided by Congress” under the use of force resolution. “The administration is not currently seeking additional authorization,” the statement said.

Contrary to that claim, this position is not a switch from Bush policy. Bush used that same legislation to justify almost every action he took. Indeed, he was prepared to use that same legislation to go to war in Iraq, until it became evident that a hastily-prepared October vote in an election year would be even more politically beneficial.

Here, the administration is hiding right out in the open. Far from a reversal of Bush policy, the Obama administration is effectively thanking Bush for giving it so much leeway in foreign policy, war-making and wholesale suspension of Constitutional clauses. I'm sure that change is here somewhere. Maybe I just don't know where to look.

How about health care? Surely such an avid socialist like Obama would scare the piss out of the insurance companies with his speech to Congress, right? Well, not so much:

Shares of U.S. health insurers climbed on Thursday after analysts saw no "game changers" from President Barack Obama's highly anticipated speech on health reform.

Following the speech, analysts predicted any changes to the system would be moderate, with Obama backing many initiatives put forth earlier this week by a leading Senate committee. The possibility a threatening public health plan would be enacted also now seemed doubtful, analysts said.

"There wasn't anything said that is drastically changing the outlook as to what might come out of Congress," said Steve Shubitz, an analyst with Edward Jones.

You read that correctly. After the speech, stocks of insurance companies rose. Despite of all the rhetoric and scaremongering, the investors took away from that speech pretty much what I did. Namely, that anything that comes out of a health care bill will actually be a boon for the insurance companies.

First and foremost being the individual mandate. Why wouldn't the insurance companies love that? Everyone has no choice but to pay them (go free market!), but any supposed government competition will never materialize. Those that can't afford the insurance will simply have their premiums paid to the private companies by the government. Somewhere, Ronald Reagan is wiping a tear from his eye with muted applause.


When You Were Here Before...Couldn't Look You in the Eye
Aug 9, 2009
Conventional Folly August 20, 2008
What Orwell Didn't Know August 1, 2008

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

There's Always a Siren...Singing You to Shipwreck

Title lyrics from Radiohead's "There There."

That, in general, people are treating General MacChrystal's recently released/leaked report on the status of the conflict in Afghanistan as if it were an influx of new and much-needed information is curious. It is decidedly not.

Most everyone without a personal stake in governance and/or fellating those that do so have recognized for some time that US actions in Afghanistan are far from the drumline/fife cavalcade that many Americans still seem to picture when they imagine war. Battalions helpfully dressed in red wool, civilians avoiding the conflict, marching in straight lines. Sadly, those of us that have put down Cornwallis' theories on war and examined the world as it currently exists aren't typically asked for our input.

Only under these circumstances would the revelation that Afghanis might enjoy a mortar-free trip to the market, or a government that doesn't make the US Congress look as corrupt as a quilting circle, or the occasion spurt of electricity (preferably not using their groins as a conductor) seem anything of the sort. These are not revelations, these are common human traits. Only Americans seem to find surprising the reality that even Brown people like to see their sons and daughters grow up. Only their concerns are more centered on little Joey retaining four limbs than whether he's better at soccer than the son of the person in the next cubicle.

Even in those rare bursts of half-realization, such as MacChrystal's report, the pull of conventional wisdom (read: mental laziness) is still too great to expect any proliferation of such epiphanies. And that's discounting the inevitability of some celebrity dying, getting divorced or shopping for pants taking its place for the news lead.

In addition to finding such mundane human realities as the desire to live vexing, Americans love to whitewash even such trivialities in even more trite catch phrases and slogans. We consider "hearts-and-minds" a tremendously profound strategy, but see upon examination that it is nothing of the sort.

When we say we want to win the "hearts and minds," we mean not that we seek to learn their values and live up to them. We mean that we want to convince them that the values we're are attempting to impose upon them are accepted silently and graciously. This is not a small distinction, and it has confused the "best-and-brightest" since the early Sixties.

We consider the populations of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan so backward and uneducated that we truly believe that they will find relief--joy, even--when they pick up a leaflet extolling American virtues next to the burning rubble of their meager existence. For the US government/military, it is inconceivable that such people might consider the realities of their surroundings when deciding how much credence to give to America propaganda. To the US government, winning hearts and minds means making a flashier leaflet, not a cessation of explosion and death.

Unlike Americans, most foreign populations are aware of the state of their government. We get temporarily bent out of shape at minor infractions upon decorum ('You lie.'), but we never examine the edifice, itself. Afghanis, on the other hand, know exactly who their government is. And it's not Hamid Karzai. They're well aware that they are governed by a cadre of corrupt, often competing, warlords, many of which receive American support.

Temporary incursions into pseudo-logical thinking like MacChrystal's only serve to make the general lack of such that much more luminous.

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